Eric V. Snow



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Counter-Attacks Against Portraying Slaveholders as Bourgeois Individualists
Several lines of attack have been launched against characterizing southern slaveholders as striving individualists seeking profit and upward mobility through their own efforts as part of a larger system of capitalistic commercial agriculture. Arguing against Oakes, Gallay notes that the great planters dominated the South politically and ideologically. By Stampp's calculations based on the Census, the elite composed of those owning over a hundred slaves constituted less than three thousand families in the South out of a population of some 1,516,000 free families. Even for small slaveholders, there remained "the hierarchical structure of the plantation with its dependent relationships."427 This leads us to the question of the nature of paternalism, and how compatible it is with a capitalist mode of production. Stamp as well as Fogel and Engerman note that paternalism can be quite compatible with enlightened self-interest or profit-making in some cases, as the success of traditionally paternalistic companies such as IBM (although its "no layoffs" policy is dead nowadays) and Eastman Kodak.428 Paternalism as a social system is not just about the duties of the subordinate and dominant classes to each other, but it gives the dominant the right to punish and control their subordinates for their own good, just as a father punishes his children for their own good.429 That such punishment also serves the interests of the dominant class--well, that is just incidental. Or is it? As Anderson noted in his review of Genovese's Roll, Jordan, Roll, the masters' ideology allowed them to turn the slaves into dependent children, permitting them to whip and otherwise punish the slaves continually:
In [Genovese's] attempt to bind the master and slave in an intimate relationship, he failed to understand that the masters, in their own minds, denied the slaves the quality of gratitude in order to commit brutality without regret or responsibility. George Fitzhugh needed to say that Africans had less self-control and that the 'master occupies toward [his slaves] the place of parent or guardian.' But historians need not accept this as genuine fatherly concern.430

Anderson's point leads us to a spectacularly unsurprising conclusion: The ideology of the upper class tends to be self-serving and self-justifying, at least when they are confident in the exercise of their power. Normally, when a businessman proclaims his belief in paternalism, such as Carnegie, who simultaneously proclaimed both philanthropy and Social Darwinism, or the businessman who declared during a strike that the best interests of the workers would be served by the Christian businessmen of America, historians eye it very suspiciously. Should not a similar level of skepticism be directed against Southern slaveholders' proclamations of the same beliefs? After all, as Degler observed, many were no more than a generation removed from personally wielding the hoe, ax, or plow themselves, which gives precious little time for an aristocratic ethos to develop from the nouveau riche milieu out of which sprang frontier success stories. Boney raises the issue of whether they deceived themselves or just others: "Whether they fooled themselves into believing otherwise [that they did not have a profit-seeking bourgeois outlook, but were aristocratic paternalists] or only misled later generations is another question entirely." The close personal ties and human intimacies that make up a truly practiced system of paternalism would occur mostly only with domestic servants, drivers, some artisans, and perhaps a few field hands a master or mistress may have played with as a child. For example, Olmsted noted how "two or three well-dressed negro servants" greeted some of the white passengers on a ship on the James River in Virginia with enthusiasm, even kisses. One fat mulatto woman shouted loudly and pathetically, "Oh, Massa George, is you come back!" to a "long-haired sophomore." By contrast, the same level of feeling was not felt by the field hands present: "Field negroes, standing by, looked on with their usual besotted expression, and neither offered nor received greetings." Stampp cites cases of masters distraught over the deaths of a personal attendant and a gardener, but who did not seem especially disturbed emotionally by the deaths of field hands. The case of James Hammond is particularly striking. While he was sincerely distressed over the death of his gardener, he was emotionally (though not financially) indifferent to the deaths of two field hands: "Neither a serious loss. One valuable mule has also died."431 For these reasons, in a view clearly different from Genovese's, Stampp is largely correct when broadbrushing this summary statement: "Plantation paternalism, then, was in most cases a kind of leisure-class family indulgence of its domestics."432 For the most part, many masters and mistresses--Barrow being an excellent case in point--probably looked at the mass of their slaves often as "Theory X" management might deal with the members of an uncooperative labor union, as employees who need constant supervision, prodding, verbal abuse, and punishments to get anything done, without any great emotional attachment to most of the individuals involved, making it easy to replace any of them. Hence, if most of the elite or middling slaveholders were striving, individualistic, profit-seeking capitalists, who often honored paternalistic ideology as mere platitudes at best, largely reserving its practice to domestic servants, then the hegemonic function of paternalism in keeping the bulk of the slaves in line is gravely weakened, for the dominant class cannot pass down to its subordinate class what it does not believe itself.433

Ignorance as a Control Device Revisited
As observed earlier in the section dealing with education (pp. 107-9), an elite can control its subordinate class by inculcating knowledge that legitimizes its authority and favors its continued control. Promoting the ideology of paternalism or the implantation of the Protestant work ethic among the slaves can be seen as a subset of this approach, although for them very little of this occurred through formal education and book learning. The other option employs ignorance as a control device for keeping a lower class in subjection. Southern slaveholders applied this method to their bondsmen in many ways. By keeping slaves in ignorance of geography, local or continental, it made successful escapes to the North or Canada much more unlikely. It is hard to escape to someplace not known to exist, or, if known, when how to get there remains unknown. Even Douglass, a literate slave, did not know of Canada's existence, and nothing in America past New York northwards, which still was not fundamentally safe due to the (old) fugitive slave return law. So he thought, when conspiring with a group of fellow slaves to escape: "We could see no spot, this side of the ocean, where we could be free." Similarly, John Hunter, who escaped from slavery in Maryland, commented: "A great many slaves know nothing of Canada,--they don't know that there is such a country." Freedman Arnold Gragston, was a slave in Mason County, Kentucky, right near the Ohio River. Before he assisted the Underground Railroad in helping slaves escape by rowing them across that river, he labored under some seemingly astonishing misconceptions about an area so close to himself: "[I] didn't know a thing about the other side. I had heard a lot about it from other slaves, but I thought it was just about like Mason County, with slaves and masters, overseers and rawhides." These stories indicate the slaves generally knew little originating from abolitionists and other Northerners propagandizing against slavery, with what was known being badly diluted and distorted by the "whispering lane" effect. Because it was nearly impossible for slaves to get this information otherwise, Ball made a special effort to memorize the names of towns, villages, rivers, and where ferries were located on them as he was taken from Maryland to Georgia to enable him to find his way back one day.434

Ignorance also helped keep slaves in bondage or in fear of acting on their freedom after emancipation came. Texas freedman Anderson Edwards and his fellow slaves did not know for a year after freedom had been proclaimed that in fact they were free. Their master had kept them in the dark until some Union soldier paid a visit and ransacked the plantation. One freedman was forced to work after emancipation for his master four years, until he stole a horse to get away, another for three years until his mistress freed him after his master was hanged, and one did not know she was free until she ran away and a black man told her she was free. The federal government wisely sent agents to fan the Southern countryside to investigate whether the freedmen were being paid and telling them they were free, because it could not trust the former masters to tell their slaves that they were no longer slaves. During the war, Georgian newspapers went to considerable trouble to spread scare stories about the treatment of ex-slaves in the North or in the Union army to discourage runaways, counting on the masters to tell these tales to their bondsmen, which evidently had some effect.435 Clearly, "knowledge is power" for an oppressed class in a very practical sense because it becomes much harder for an elite to tightly control a subordinate group that knows substantially as much as its rulers, such as due to widespread public education.436
How Masters Would Manipulate the Slaves' Family Ties in Order to Control Them
Another control device, already described above (p. 159) in the section dealing with the family life of the slaves, was for masters and mistresses to manipulate the family relationships of the bondsmen for labor discipline purposes. The Southern Baptist minister Holland Nimmons McTyeire stated in his essay "Duties of Christian Masters" that slaveholders should build up the family unit among the slaves for reasons that also benefited their self-interest:
Local as well [as] family associations, thus cast about him, are strong yet pleasing cords binding him to his master. His welfare is so involved in the order of things, that he would not for any consideration have it disturbed. He is made happier and safer, put beyond discontent, or the temptation to rebellion and abduction; for he gains nothing in comparison with what he loses.437
Family ties also had the practical effect of discouraging slaves from running away, since they did not want to leave wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, etc. behind in the South if they fled alone. And if they fled in a group, they became easier to track down and catch. One Georgian overseer was not at all afraid that abolitionists would successfully tempt a slave to escape he was sending to the North with his family because: "I take care, when my wife goes North with the children, to send Lucy with her; her children are down here, and I defy all the Abolitionists in creation to get her to stay North."438 Jacobs, if she had not been a mother, would have found it much easier to flee to the North, but she felt compelled to try to have her children freed as well: "I could have made my escape alone; but it was more for my helpless children than for myself that I longed for freedom. Though the boon would have been precious to me, above all price, I would not have taken it at the expense of leaving them in slavery."439 Douglass made a similar point, but because his family life had been very weak, he latched onto the importance of friends, such as those in his own life, as discouraging slaves from running away: "It is my opinion that thousands would escape from slavery, who now remain, but for the strong cords of affection that bind them to their friends."440 Always one of the most powerful ways family ties could be used against the bondsmen was for a slaveholder to threaten to sell them or some other family member as the ultimate punishment for disobedience. Colonial Georgian William Simpson noted that a slave he sold wrote "to his wife frequently, and appears by his letters to be in great distress for want of her." He had sold him for being disobedient, but now said he was considering buying him back to rejoin husband and wife.441 But in most cases family members separated by sale were unlikely ever to see each other again, unless it was a local one. Using the family ties of their slaves to control them, through discouraging escapes or using the threat of sale, the slaveholding elite used against them some of the very aspects of their character that proved their humanity, and that they were not animals, to the whites.
Positive Incentives Only a Supplementary Method for Controlling the Bondsmen
Using positive incentives was another way for masters and mistresses to deal with their slaves, such as rewards for working hard. While the stick inevitably looms much larger than the carrot in slaveholders' dealings with their slaves, as argued above against Fogel and Engerman (pp. 233-35, 240-44), positive incentives did exist, and played a supplementary role in controlling and disciplining the slaves. One standard way to get extra work from the slaves was to pay them for overtime hours, such as for work on Sundays and late nights. Although a master or mistress could compel the slaves to work these hours, the negative repercussions (work slowdowns, the neighbors' criticisms, etc.) were such that they usually paid them for the extra work. When done with their tasks for the day, several boys worked willingly for Kemble to clear paths on her husband's estate for pay within twenty-four hours of her making the offer. Similarly, some carpenters there made a boat they sold for sixty dollars to a neighboring planter built in their spare time. Patrick Snead, born a slave in Savannah, Georgia, worked as a cooper making barrels. His task was to make eighteen a week, but since he "could make more than twice as many . . . [he] began to have money." John Clopton, once a slave in Virginia, worked nights to earn the money to buy a hat and some clothes because his master supplied him with no hat and few clothes. Olmsted found one farmer in Louisiana who paid slaves fifty or seventy-five cents a day to work for him Sundays. Another Mississippi planter's blacks earned money for extras such as tobacco by working Saturdays and Sundays, with one clearing fifty dollars in a year by making boards with axes. Paid work did have its problems for slaves, because they could be more easily cheated by their employer, who could refuse to pay them, and then they had no legal redress. One slave in Mississippi was not paid three dollars for a number of Sundays he had worked for one white farmer. John Quitman's slaves received pay for chopping wood on Sundays. His brother-in-law Henry Turner complained that the slaves were "very troublesome in the way of asking for their dues when not paid" for chickens they had raised on the Monmouth plantation in Mississippi.442 As noted above earlier (pp. 222-223), while the slaves willingly did extra work (i.e., without the compulsion of the whip), it was not totally voluntary because the masters did not give them enough to allow them to get by at all comfortably without the extra work's earnings. After all, if Clopton's master gave him the necessary food, but hardly any clothes, when he chooses to work Sundays to buy clothes, this work was not truly voluntary. The master's arbitrary power in reducing the sustenance provided to his slaves forced them to work overtime "voluntarily" for real necessities. A slave who did a bad job in overtime work did not face the whip, but the penalty of going shirtless, hatless, knifeless, panless, etc., was harsh enough.
Slaveholders also had less formal incentives than pay for overtime work. Freedwoman Mary Reynolds remembered that her master in Louisiana at Christmas time gave a suit of clothes to the cotton picker who had picked the most. Henry Laurens and his overseer wished to give an incentive to his most dutiful slaves and get others to imitate their example. Instead of giving them the standard "white plains" for clothes, they were given blue cloth and metal buttons for their clothes. Barrow bought for his slaves Atean and Dave Bartley a suit of clothes for each one time in August because of their "fine conduct picking cotten &c." More generally, slaves worked perhaps because it was an intrinsically understandable part of the production process, unlike the work of many industrial workers monotonously engaged in making or assembling the parts of machines. Some self-interest did exist, because they generally grew the corn and raised the hogs they were fed with. Some were industrious because they felt they had a stake in successfully completing work, as Blassingame noted: "Many slaves developed this feeling because the planters promised them money, gifts, dinners, and dances if they labored faithfully."443 Others worked on their own time on some patch of land their owner allowed them to cultivate, growing crops they could eat or sell to raise cash, in a manner remarkably similar to the allotments of English agricultural workers. One master found it easier to control his slaves by threatening deductions from the revenue produced by them on the patches of land they worked. The privilege to raise crops on their own time became particularly important in the task system areas, where some slaves developed major holdings of animals through their families' voluntary work once the involuntary task for their masters were finished, in a manner reminiscent of medieval serfdom, where peasants worked on their lord's land so many days per week, and on their own so many days per week.444 Hence, while slaveholders did offer slaves positive incentives, these should not be seen as motivating work more than negative "incentives" such as the whip, executions, and the threat of sale. The very nature of slavery eliminated positive incentives as the fundamental motivator for the enslaved because, usually, "No effort of your own can make you free, but no absence of effort shall starve you."445
One of Fogel and Engerman's mistakes concerning the pervasiveness of incentives for slaves was to equate gifts given to slaves at Christmas time with an incentive system. They cite Barrow's year end bonuses, claiming: "The amounts received by particular slaves were proportional to their performance." The diary does not support this claim, because Barrow did not say which slaves received how much from the overall amounts given to all the slaves listed in his diary. These cash gifts appear to be gifts unrelated to work performance, which means then they could not have had motivating effects. For example, Barrow wrote for December 24, 1838: "Hands went to Town payed them last night $500." Similarly, for December 24, 1841 we find: "verry cold, Gave the negros money last night $700. all went to Town to day." During one year, 1842, due to financial hardship, he dispensed with monetary gifts altogether, explaining why he did so: "Gave the negros as much of Evry thing to eat & drink during the Hollidays as they Wanted times so hard no able to give any thing more." When someone "gives" someone something, it is not an incentive in any direct sense, because it is not tied to personal productivity. Sides portrays the mistress distributing Christmas gifts largely regardless of merit: "[She] distributed the gifts to the slaves, trying to treat them all equally, though allowing herself to give an extra present 'where some notable conduct warranted it.'" Some plantations also distributed the winter rations of clothes, blankets, and shoes this time of the year, which were not gifts, but what the slaves were automatically entitled to, regardless of work effort. Barrow's Christmas time gifts for slaves were likely no more "incentives" for his slaves than any given to his own children.446

Fogel and Engerman emphasize the incentive effects of rewarding slaves better jobs who served their masters and mistresses well:
Slaves had the opportunity to rise within the social and economic hierarchy that existed under bondage. Field hands could become artisans or drivers. . . . Climbing the economic ladder brought not only social status, and sometimes more freedom; it also had significant payoffs in better housing, better clothing, and cash bonuses.
Although referring to The Jamaica Planter's Guide, they cite no direct evidence that American slaveowners operated this way. Their indirect evidence came from interpreting a skewed age distribution found in a heavily sugar-growing parish they surveyed, which was biased towards older men among the artisans. They said this meant older men were rewarded with better jobs due to serving their masters better when younger. Problematically for them, this age distribution could also be explained by a declining demand for trained slaves towards the late antebellum period, perhaps due to European immigration to urban areas in the South.447
One major problem confronts the claim the slaves desired to climb up an occupational pyramid for better jobs and material conditions: The slaves with the better jobs, such as drivers and domestic servants, were often seen as stooges serving their master's interests and enforcers of his rules by the ordinary field hands in the quarters. A job that gave a slave high prestige in the eyes of the master often had correspondingly low status in the eyes of the bulk of the slaves, at least if the slaves in the high positions were seen as generally identifying with and consistently serving their master's interests without giving others any slack.448 A number of slaves clearly felt the trade-offs involved were worth it, because to demote (or threaten to) a domestic servant to field work was an effective control device precisely because he did wish to keep the job he already had.449 It does make sense that the more reliable, loyal, intelligent, and/or diligent slaves would end up as drivers, artisans, or domestic servants, such as Atean, who ended up a foreman on Barrow's plantation. Still, the high level of capriciousness in promotion decisions easily undermined the incentive effects involved, especially if these slaves picked up the opprobrium of their fellows as they rose. While artisans and drivers did have better conditions than ordinary field hands, Fogel and Engerman fail to link "specified performance standards" and "the strength of the existing inducements--material and other" to those wishing "to escape the lot of the ordinary field hand," ignoring how an occupational hierarchy's mere existence does not guarantee merit, as opposed to nepotism or chance, is the main way of assigning positions within it.450
The Brutal Overseer as a Historical Reality
One very basic decision a master had to make about organizing his plantation's operations concerned whether he hired an overseer or performed his own supervision, leaning upon black drivers more. If he hired an overseer, then the problem was the master did not necessarily like "paid management's" motives when managing his slaves. Since an overseer did not own the slaves he managed, he was more apt to mistreat them, especially when given the high turnover rate endemic to this profession, which made him still less likely to care about the individual bondsmen he supervised. In order to make a large crop, he was apt to drive the slaves too hard. One English traveler from Mississippi wrote to the London Daily News in 1857 that:
[The overseer's] professional reputation depends in a great measure upon the number of bales or hogsheads he is able to produce, and neither his education nor his habits are such as to render it likely that he would allow any consideration for the negroes to stand in the way of his advancing it. . . . His skill consists in knowing exactly how hard they may be driven without incapacitating them for future exertion.451
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